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Older adults adapting to foreign accents
How do older adults adapt to speech with an unfamiliar accent? Can we identify which listener characteristics predict how quickly older adults improve on an accent they have never heard before? Yes we can, Esther Janse (MPI) and Patti Adank (University of Manchester) conclude in a study that was published online on April 25 in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Adults with better vocabulary knowledge and attentional abilities performed best.
May 4, 2012
When you first encounter someone speaking with an unfamiliar accent, he or she may sound completely unintelligible to you at first, but will become more intelligible once you have heard several sentences by this speaker.
Esther Janse (MPI for Psycholinguistics & Center for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen) and Patti Adank (School of Psychological Science, University of Manchester) investigated comprehension of and adaptation to speech with an unfamiliar accent in older adults.
The older adults in this study were presented with sentences with an unfamiliar accent. They had to decide as quickly as possible whether a sentence made sense or not. Half of the sentences were true statements (e.g., Bevers bouwen dammen in de rivier; English: “Beavers build dams in the river”), and the other half were false (e.g., Bevers groeien in een moestuin; English: “Beavers grow in a vegetable patch”). Further, one group of participants only heard the sentences, and the other group both heard and saw the speaker speak with this unfamiliar accent.
Improved accuracy and quicker responses
"We wanted to know whether audiovisual presentation would facilitate adaptation to the novel accent, and which cognitive and linguistic measures would predict adaptation," Janse explains. Participants were therefore tested on a range of background tests: hearing acuity, auditory verbal short-term memory, working memory, attention-switching control, selective attention, and vocabulary knowledge.
Both auditory-only and audiovisual groups showed improved accuracy and decreasing response times over the course of the experiment, effectively showing adaptation to the accent. Even though the total amount of improvement was similar for the auditory-only and audiovisual groups, initial rate of adaptation was faster in the audiovisual group. Hearing sensitivity and short-term and working memory measures were associated with efficient processing of the novel accent. Analysis of the relationship between accent comprehension and the background tests revealed furthermore that selective attention and vocabulary size predicted the amount of adaptation over the course of the experiment.
These results suggest that knowledge of our own language and general attentional abilities facilitate perceptual learning.
Link to the online publication.
Janse, E., & Adank, P. (2012). Predicting foreign-accent adaptation in older adults. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/17470218.2012.658822.